Take a ride with ‘Alceste’

The French film ‘Alceste a Bicyclette’ is a tour de force for Fabrice Luchini and Lambert Wilson.

Take a ride with ‘Alceste’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Take a ride with ‘Alceste’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Alceste a Bicyclette Hebrew title: Moliere al ofanayim.Directed by Philippe Le Guay Written by Le Guay and Fabrice Luchini With Luchini and Lambert WilsonRunning time: 104 minutes.In French. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Sometimes a modestly conceived movie can be quite enjoyable, and that’s the case with Alceste a Bicyclette, directed by Philippe Le Guay. Lovers of French classical drama in general and Moliere in particular will best appreciate the film, as it concerns an actor who wants to mount a new production of Le Misanthrope.
But the movie is not only about the world of theater. It also says quite a bit about ambition, tradition, rivalry, eccentricity and reverence for the classics in a world where most people have forgotten all about great art.
Most of all, it is a showcase for its two superb actors, Fabrice Luchini and Lambert Wilson. Luchini was last seen on the big screen here in Le Guay’s previous film, The Women on the Sixth Floor , in which he played a reserved and stressed bourgeois paterfamilias whose life changes when he gets to know the Spanish maids who live upstairs. Luchini, credited with co-developing the screenplay for this film with Le Guay, may not be a household name but has been in more than 70 films, including Laurent Tirard’s Moliere (in which he plays a laughable aristocrat who inspires some of Moliere’s characters) and Francois Ozon’s Potiche , where he has a similar but contemporary part as an imperious industrialist.
Here, Luchini is Serge, a brilliant actor who has retired from his profession abruptly and moved to a broken-down (but very nice-looking) house he inherited on the Ile de Re. He is content with his solitude, tooling around the island on his bicycle and painting nudes he copies from photos. But when a younger actor, Gauthier Valance (Lambert Wilson) shows up, he is happier to see him than he may be willing to admit.
Gauthier is there with a mission: to convince Serge to return to acting and to star in a production of Le Misanthrope , where he and Serge will alternate the central role of Alceste and the less showy part of Philinte.
Serge is intrigued, and tempted. But it’s not in his nature to make anything easy for anyone. He proposes that Gauthier stay on Ile de Re for a few days so they can work on the play. If things are going well, he’ll go back to Paris and perform. If not, he’ll stay put.
That’s the basic set-up for what turns out to be a thoughtful character study of the two men, interspersed with and illuminated by long passages from Moliere. Serge, of course, is a man much like Alceste. He is bitter because he feels that his colleagues in show business abandoned him when he suffered a bout of depression. He is supremely confident about his ability as an actor, and that’s something that Gauthier envies.
Gauthier is the star of a popular TV drama in which he plays a brain surgeon. Describing the character, and the series, he says dryly, “He operates in the desert, in blizzards, you get the idea.” People love his show and are drawn to him, and he basks in his celebrity but, at the same time, is dissatisfied. He wants a challenge; he wants to play opposite Serge. And so he’s willing to play Serge’s games, even to pretend he is interested in buying a vacation house, just to keep Serge interested.
Although the two men mean to be single-minded in their devotion to Moliere, they become involved with other people on the island. There is Francesca (Maya Sansa), an elegant and arrogant woman going through a divorce, who is selling a house that Gauthier considers buying. She and Serge are drawn to each other. And Gauthier agrees to give an acting lesson to the hotel manager’s niece, a lovely young woman who is planning a career in pornography, who turns out to be too free-spirited even for him.
But these excursions away from Moliere are the most predictable and least memorable part of the film. It’s at its best when the two of them are working on their text and finding new meaning in the words, themselves and each other.